Accor Group’s Innovations & Design Department

Michel Gicquel
Artistic Director innovations and Design Department
Wednesday 6th January 2010

Accor Group’s Innovations & Design Department

The Fatal Weapon
Spearheading the Accor Hospitality groups's drive towards guest rooms that will match or even exceed tomorrow’s clients’ wants and needs, Michel Gicquel has been coordinating a profound reflection on the topic. So how is the living space evolving?

The evolution of the guest room comes primarily through its layout. Today, there is a fundamental change to the guest room plan.

In other words, we’re not at all talking about the detail of the size of the TV or how the plugs are situated; we are talking about how one “lives this space”. There is something of which we must be conscious today, it’s that the hotel, like the home habitat, is evolving towards a third era: the digital, or virtual age, where the distribution of space is changing.
To summarise this, for the 20 centuries of the rural age, habitats were singular spaces, where one would eat, sleep and share everything around a central fireplace in a communal or tribal manner. The industrial revolution saw a physical mutation. People moved into towns, and the homes, epitomised by the Haussmann or Victorian styles, where rooms were dedicated to functions. Bedrooms were for sleeping, sitting room for sitting, dining room for dining, and so on. That was the industrial age, and we have been seeing the dying phases of this period over the past twenty or thirty years. At the same time, we’ve been seeing an explosion in world population, a looming energy crisis, not to mention environmental issues.
So on the one hand, we have pressure and on the other a fundamental evolution, and at the same time, the emergence of new products that we all use; products that are smaller and smaller; products that are less and less expensive, more and more reliable and increasingly nomadic. Consequently, the evolution of society leads the evolution of our habitat, and the habitat becomes one of adaptability and flexibility. For example, the kitchen is becoming a place in which people “live”, while the traditional dining room is tending to disappear. It’s becoming a multi-functional room with doors that stay open or closed, and the relationship between the bedroom and bathroom is changing, as people leave the door open between the two.
If you are alone, why have just a few square metres space when you can have twelve or more? It’s not big, so why not open it up, but at the same time be able to close it when you want? We’re not in the “all open” concept such as the loft, which is not a great solution. We’re not in the “all closed” as we’ve had over the past decades; we have arrived at the age of CHOICE... and that’s what’s fundamental and that is what is going to influence the next 50 years of interior architecture.

How does technology fit into this?

The layout of hotel rooms, and the layout of the home habitat will be centred on adaptability and flexibility and that’s where technology comes into play, because if we didn’t have our nomadic technologies, this concept would not work; my theory would not work. You have to be able to work on your bed, or in the bathroom, you have to be able to drive all the systems. So at the same time, you have an environmental constraint which means the habitat will not be bigger, because one square metre is two and a half cubic metres to heat or cool, and that’s a cost and we can’t afford that! So the only way to obtain more space is to make the space we have better adapted to its functions. In other words, why make a kitchen in a room of four square metres if you can have another perspective. Why close yourself in the bathroom to take a bath if you’re all alone? Even if you’re not alone it can be nice or even fun! Only recently, we have discovered, having studied biorhythms, that when we are alone, we have different needs depending on moods. If our biorhythms are down, we have a tendency to want to be “closed in” or to “cocoon”.
When, on the other hand, one’s biorhythms open up, the same person, all alone, in the same habitat, will be able to play with the flexibility of space. It’s only very recently that we have come to understand this. It means we won’t need more space tomorrow, because this adaptability will enable us to reduce the overall space, but increase the level of comfort. In addition to this, on the one hand, we have beds that are getting bigger, because people have been getting taller in the post-war era, and at the same time, we have televisions that take up a lot less room. The bed used to be 190 cm long in the 1960’s, and today it’s 2.10 metres; but luckily at the same time, the CRT TV that used to take up 45 cm now only takes up 10 or 12 cm since the onset of LCD TV. If you take the hotel room, where the TV is most often facing the bed, finally the conjugation of the two means that we have recovered some space! Not bad! At the same time they say we should use less space because of energy usage, but we also travel a lot faster with smaller baggage and fewer clothes. So is the dressing area really useful? In many cases, it can be reduced. Here we are no longer talking about decoration; we are talking about the fundamentals of space. This is typically the criterion of a fundamental mutation of society. You have macro- evolutions and micro-evolutions and we live the latter every day. But for a macro-evolution to become possible, there needs to be a conjunction between the various phenomena, meaning the constraints and the responses to those constraints. This is exactly what is happening today. Living spaces are being re- constructed. If you look at the concept room here at the Pullman hotel, it was made with the aim of translating a new way of living spaces. The technologies we have used for this are part of the sum, but the veritable mutation is the reflection on space. This has nothing to do with technology, but technology is what allows it. So one should not confuse the issues here, because technology for technology’s sake has no interest. It is only there to accompany a mutation of society, and here we are really in the midst of a profound mutation.

We have seen that your concept rooms take account of this evolution... but what about the new guestrooms that are rolling out in your latest renovations and new builds? Will these follow the trends you mention?

Yes, the layout will completely change. It’s a case of playing with flexibility and transparency. It’s the way of appropriating space that’s different. Then, the technologies we install, whether they be behind new materials or those that we generally talk about today... in both cases, they will be out of date in five years! We know this. On the other hand, what will not be outdated in the next decades will be this new way of using spaces. I believe we have been able to transmute this very well in our new rooms. What we verified with regard to this, when there was some doubt as to whether clients really wanted this schema, the inverse was true. The guests appropriate it completely, and I find that great. There have been some aberrations however. There is, for example a hotel where they put the bath next to the bed, which is completely stupid. This is just done for the principle of surprise, but one should not take hotel guests for idiots. It’s not a fundamental reflection on society. If there is adaptability and flexibility and the user understands how it works, and hence appropriates it, he uses the spaces as he wants, in function with his desires. It’s the first time in the evolution of the habitat and the hotel that once the client closes the door he can organise it as he wants. There are of course limits to this, such as being able to move the bed, as the guest is only there for a short time.

How are the Accor Group’s concept rooms tested?

It is very important that the guests be accompanied at the outset. We want to test the reaction of clients to new products that they have probably never used before. If we throw them the keys and leave them to their own devices, they may understand a certain number of things, but there are some things they may miss because we didn’t take ten minutes to explain. That would be a shame, because these rooms have unbelievable technology in them.

Do guests have to pay more to use the concept room?

No. The price is the same as a standard room. We didn’t want price to be a barrier... but for many it has been a “must” to have the privilege of staying in the concept room. These are rooms we don’t just give to anybody. We only give them to clients we know are interested in staying in a concept room, and in this sense they know they may encounter technology they don’t know already. This being the case, they are prepared to spend a little time learning about what’s inside. An example is that of recycled or recyclable materials. We need to explain this to the guest, as we can’t put tags on everything.

it’s true, sometimes we need instructions even when it’s not a concept room!

Yes, because the engineer designing the room was perhaps left to his own devices, and that’s the worst thing one can do. I’m well placed to know that! Sometimes they forget the affordance of the client, that is to say the comprehension by the client of the products. The success of a hotel room by definition comes from the capacity of the guest to comprehend the technology, the product, or even the space. Once we enter the room we should be in a “no stress zone”. That’s my definition of a hotel room, and that’s why we do these kinds of tests. Anything that has an effect to the contrary, we have to try to understand why.
If there is flexibility, one should understand whether a door pivots or slides in order to open the space. If you have to take time to find the handle with which to slide the door it means we’ve got it all wrong. And if, when a woman slides the door, she breaks a nail, we also have it wrong. This is all part of affordance – the understanding of spaces and the comprehension of how we can transform and appropriate them. This is true for volumes, it’s true for objects and it’s true for technologies, whatever they may be... and that’s fundamental. So what has been the reasoning behind the concept rooms? The first one was completed in 1997, and it was a huge success. It was fully automated, and featured the first autonomous colour touch panel by Crestron in the world. It was worth almost 7,000 euros! Consequently we mounted it on the wall to avoid someone dropping it on the floor! We weren’t worried about people stealing it, because they couldn’t have done anything with it, but we were concerned someone may drop it. We learned that in-room automation was very poorly perceived by most guests, despite the fact that they were willing participants in the test. It wasn’t part of their mentality, due to the fact they didn’t have it at home or in the office... they had never used it anywhere, so it necessitated a huge amount of effort. So all the systems in my values are bypassed. In other words, you have the choice between in-room automation or classic controls; you have the choice between biometrics or a magnetic room card... you have the choice. I don’t like the concept of big brother. I prefer to give people choice. And as soon as you have the choice, you tend to go for the thing that’s a little more amusing or exciting, because you are not constrained, so it becomes a game. We noted with the first, the second, and even the latest concept rooms that in-room automation was poorly perceived. It’s getting better and better, but it remains complex. That said, today, what used to be a sticking point is now, 12 years later, finally starting to be appreciated by some guests. So we were right to have imagined its use, but it was much too early.
Another example in that first room, room 217, was that we had five fragrances, one anti-tobacco (at the time it was possible to smoke in the rooms), two dynamic fragrances and two relaxing fragrances. The guest that arrives in the hotel either heads back out and hits the town with his friends, or otherwise wants to relax and sleep. In that research, we tested 50 fragrances and now we know which ones are really relaxing and which ones give a really dynamic feeling. The olfactory sense has a major effect on people. What we noted when testing this is that while the other senses are instantaneous, it takes at least a few minutes for a fragrance to diffuse throughout a room.
Consequently, some people would say, ‘Hey this doesn’t work!’ and we had to tell them to wait a few minutes. In the knowledge of this, we consequently advised guests that they would have to wait for the fragrance to penetrate the room.

Being able to introduce these innovations must give you a great amount of satisfaction...

No. There is no question of being satisfied... that’s rubbish, and would be totally pretentious. Simply it is driving oneself to obtain the right kind of reflection on the matter, but there is no satisfaction to be had from being right! That remark is embarrassing. It’s not a question of satisfaction. You work with people... you look at the world around you...

But you are among the only ones ... This kind of reflection is beyond the ordinary...

Listen... think about it... the reflection perhaps... I am an engineer by trade. Whether we be numerous or not to think about this, there is not the least satisfaction to be gleaned from the reflection. I have a passion for habitat; I have a passion for art history, and studying the way our habitat has evolved over time. We are looking at a major mutation in humanity. It’s a “virtual” mutation. People live in the city and they escape virtually, via the Internet. I’m not a specialist in research; I simply observe what is going on around me. One should simply be pragmatic.